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The Hangover: Recovering When The Party's Over

What's the lowdown on the dreaded hangover?

Hangovers…many have experienced them, and many dread them around the world. Birthdays, weddings, celebrations or even a simple relaxation after a long day at work can get you thinking about paying for it the next morning, and sometimes even planning ahead because of it.  

While you’re one of the many people who sit back and sip without reservations, some people try to hack the system and see if it’s truly avoidable. You’ve heard it all; the limericks, the nighttime routines, the tips and tricks on how to wake up early and refreshed. Most people assume hangovers are something that “happens to everybody,” given how common alcohol consumption is in general.

The truth is, like most things in life, it’s a little bit of both. We'll dive a bit into the biological causes of hangovers and the relationship between alcohol and cellular health, so you can make informed decisions on how you want to manage and better your personal wellness and balance!

What are the symptoms of a hangover? 

Hangovers often present in different ways to different people. While one person may experience crippling “hangxiety,” another may experience extreme nausea, and another a small headache.  Of course, these symptoms will differ due to various factors like body mass, frequency of alcohol use, fat-to-muscle ratio, and lastly, age. While the first three factors can be modified through lifestyle factors, aging is something that simply can’t be stopped. 

Others may be susceptible to bad hangovers involving many severe symptoms, and this may be due to genetic differences in one’s ability to metabolize alcohol at the biochemical level, or an allergic to certain types of alcohol. In either case, the best approach is to avoid alcohol altogether; but in the case of the latter, it may be that switching to another type of alcohol, like choosing tequila over vodka, may be what’s needed to avoid allergic reactions to this compound. 

It’s important to note that alcohol intolerance is different than a hangover or allergy -- it is more of the body’s preference. This can present symptoms like redness in the face, stuffy nose/sinus, changes in blood pressure, nausea, and vomiting. In these instances, the effects of alcohol are felt shortly after consumption and are not considered part of a “hangover.” This is simply your body’s way of saying “Hey, I don’t like this and can’t handle it well.” 


Biological basis of hangover symptoms 

There is a wide consensus that a hangover is often the case of alcohol withdrawal. This does make sense when we consider what alcohol truly is: a drug. And like many (if not all) of them, they can cause various withdrawal symptoms that range from physical to psychological changes. The leading question to date, however, is what exactly happens at the biological level that brings about the symptoms of a hangover.  

First and foremost, many researchers believe it is the byproduct of alcohol metabolism called acetaldehyde that generates many of the typical hangover symptoms. Other chemicals that are introduced during the processing and maturation of alcohol, known as congeners, are thought to contribute to the intensity and duration of hangovers as well. 

One of the most prominent and important changes that occur following alcohol consumption is the dehydration of cells. This is where cellular health comes into the picture! Alcohol is known to be a diuretic, which simply means it increases the rate by which one produces urine (which is commonly the cause of “breaking the seal”). But it’s important to realize that optimal cellular function requires a well-hydrated cellular environment, and depleting the cell of water can significantly impact many processes like protein synthesis, energy production, and metabolism, to name a few. Alcohol consumption can hinder these processes, and why you feel the negative effects of these physiological symptoms.  

This dehydration can lead to feelings of tiredness, weakness, and changes in mental alertness as the muscles of the body struggle to metabolize energy sources to use as fuel and the neurons in your brain try and maintain steady firing rates to coordinate cognitive processes. 

This is partly why those extreme feelings of overwhelming tiredness tend to settle in after a long night of drinking, along with the changes in mental clarity and responsiveness. Just because you feel incredibly tired after a night of drinks, it doesn’t mean you are necessarily getting a good night’s sleep. This is because alcohol is known to inhibit the most important part of sleep known to provide rejuvenation to the body and mind—rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is why, regardless of how much sleep you may get after a night out, you’re likely to still feel tired and “bogged down” the following day.  

Optimal cellular function and sleep are also intricately tied; you can read more about that here! 

Together, a lack of REM sleep and overnight dehydration are two factors that contribute to the severity of a hangover. This is why it is incredibly important to consume water throughout the night as you sip back your favorite spiked beverage!  

Lastly (but certainly not least), it is important to remember that when a cell experiences dehydration, keeping up with regular cellular activities can be highly stressful and demanding, which is a recipe for oxidative stress and inflammation. In simple terms, why you feel “run down.”  

Drinking alcohol can impair the body’s ability to break down a compound called lactic acid, which is a byproduct that accumulates in muscle cells as a result of muscle energy metabolism. Lactic acid is also the compound that contributes to cramps and aches and just so happens to be directly linked to immune function. It is likely that those muscle aches are a result of lactic acid buildup and are compounded by increased inflammatory responses throughout the body.  

Is there a link between hangovers and aging?

Hangovers just aren’t what they used to be... or are they? 

While some may say that we simply feel like they’ve gotten worse, it’s actually very likely that we truly are experiencing hangovers differently as a result of lifestyle factors and biological changes. For instance, hangover severity may be a direct result of less frequent consumption of alcohol as we age—typically, one decreases the volume of alcohol they drink as they get older. So when you do, your body isn’t as “prepared.” 

At the same time, changes in the ability of your liver to metabolize compounds may contribute to slower or less optimal metabolism of alcohol and its by-products. Cellular function is a primary factor in liver function, as it is with any of our bodies vital systems that help us recoup and recover.  

Moreover, total body water retention declines over time as we age, which may compound the dehydration effect of alcohol, thereby intensifying the physical and psychological effects of dehydrated cells. Pre-clinical evidence also suggests that the internal clock that regulates our sleep patterns may even influence how sensitive our bodies become as we age to the effects of alcohol. Altogether, there appears to be a link between aging and the intensity of hangovers, and these are influenced by lifestyle and biological factors alike. 

What about these hangover cures—do they work?  

While some products may claim that their “hangover pill” can cure the aftereffects of alcohol, there is limited scientific evidence to actually support these claims. It may be that these pills improve electrolyte balance or aid in metabolism of alcohol, but what’s true is that hangovers are a complex process that involves many moving parts—fixing one thing or another, like restoring electrolytes or increasing alcohol metabolism, is not the be-all-end-all of curing a hangover.  

In the end, until scientists develop a way to mimic the body’s restorative processes that occur during recovery from a hangover, some of the best ways to reduce hangover intensity are to drink plenty of water, and not to over-induldge! It is also true, that clear alcohol has less of those pesky congeners we discussed earlier, so switching to a vodka or tequila could help. Minimizing sugar in your beverages can also help keep your body functioning at its peak. 

Grabbing an electrolyte-filled beverage at the end of the night and the next day, consuming a balanced diet, and maintaining regular exercise are also great ways to reduce the impact of alcohol on the next morning’s headache and muscle aches. 

As usual, it's all about balance! Taking care of yourself not just retroactively, but attempting to take care of the root cause and overall cellular health is always beneficial. 


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